Monday, November 12, 2018

Succulents and Cacti as Bonsai Accessories

Author: Vijaya Chamundeswari

"Small is beautiful" My attraction to gardening began with these artifacts of Nature in the form of cacti and other succulents. Every time I see these beady, juicy varieties of succulents I used to pick them up to add to my tiny collection. Some used to survive while most just dwindle and wither away. It took me time to realize that they belong to a different atmosphere and that it takes a lot of care to get them to acclimatize and survive here in Chennai. This was not the case with Cacti as they seem to be super survivors. OK now, just in case you are wondering how to distinguish between cacti and succulents, here is an easy tip. All cacti are succulents but all succulents are not cacti. Succulents are plants that are thick and juicy with a waxy outer layer. Cacti have thorns or some hairy protrusions, coming out of a round grey cushion like area called areole.

    The reason why we hit at this topic though is its connection to Bonsai. Kusamono and Shitakusa are Japanese names given to denote plants that accompany or accentuate the look of a Bonsai while we display it. Kusa means grass. Usually pretty little grass varieties that accompany a Bonsai in the pot are Kusamono.  Shitakusa is a separate little container that holds these little beauties. Here we are replacing the grass with cacti and other succulents so let us just call them accent plants.Since we are trying to add beauty to the bonsai display the container that holds these plants should look artistic.They can either be the craftsmanship of a potter or your own creative skill in using what ever material you can lay your hands on, be it a coffee mug, a broken crockery or even a bulb or shell.

    Now we come to soil, water and sunlight which are the three main necessities to sustain plant life.

    Soil needs to be coarse which allows good drainage. We add 2 parts of grit, 1 part of cow dung and leaf mould manure that is dry and powdery and 1 part of garden soil. a little bit of bone meal will add to the strength of the plant.Make sure the drain hole does not get clogged with fine soil. Usually plants bought from the nursery have a lot of clay and red soil which has to be removed carefully while we re pot. Anything that holds too much moisture should be avoided. Re potting and manuring once in a year is more than sufficient.
     Water only when the soil is dry. The soil should be moist and not wet. Any water that has drained into the saucer or plate under the pot should be removed. During rains shift all succulents to a dry place. These plants are hardly attacked by pests because of the spines and wax on them but rodents do mess with them.Over watering is the only culprit that rots the root and the entire plant.
    Sunlight is the energizer that helps the plant to manufacture chlorophyll. Succulents and cacti have very tiny or no leaves at all. The spiny protrusions are like leaves but chlorophyll is produced in its green and thick stems. They store their food/nutrition in them. Any damage to the stem will make it rot. So while propagating we need to remove a whole segment for it to root in the soil which is pretty fast. Cutting the stem midway will kill it. Most Cacti need a lot of sunlight which gives them lovely hues and flowers well too.Succulents need sunlight in a cool atmosphere. So you have to choose the appropriate place. Succulents in Chennai need to get acclimatized in a particular place and position so shifting them on and off might confuse their chemistry and is not advisable. Ideally a window sill or under a clean shady tree would suit well and of course the option of a green house is always there.

    We normally add on to our collection from friends and nurseries. Propagation of cacti and succulents is very easy for they catch root very fast on coarse sand once they are nipped at the segment. Since we are looking at tiny pots to hold them we can have a large shallow container to help them multiply and pick a small section for the display pot. The reason is the small pot cannot hold the plant permanently. As the succulents multiply we need to remove and make space in the pot to avoid jamming and rotting.
    So here we are, all set to add that little bit of more to our beautiful Bonsai.